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by William H. Benson

October 27, 2011

     In its September 18th edition, the New York Times Magazine ran an article on an interesting subject, developing students’ character. Dominic Randolph, the headmaster at New York City’s Riverdale Country School, suggested that in life character can be of far greater importance than intelligence.

     “There was this idea in America that if you worked hard and you showed real grit, that you could be successful. Strangely, we’ve now forgotten that. People who have an easy time of things, who get 800s on their SAT’s, I worry that those people get feedback that everything they’re doing is great.”

     “And I think as a result, we are actually setting them up for long-term failure. When that person suddenly has to face up to a difficult moment, then I think they’re ruined. I don’t think they’ve grown the capacities to be able to handle that.”

     Another educator, David Levin, superintendent of the KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter schools in New York City, has tried to incorporate character training into his school’s curriculum. KIPP’s slogans are “Work Hard,” “Be Nice,” “There Are No Shortcuts,” and “Climb the Mountain to College,” and its goals are “that 75 percent of KIPP alumni will graduate from a four-year college, and 100 percent will be prepared for a stable career.” Currently, only 33% will graduate from college.

     Why is character so important? Since humanity began its slow rise, societies have paid homage to moral and religious laws that guided people toward better behavior. For an example, consider the Ten Commandments. Yet, character has a practical benefit: “cultivating these strengths represented a reliable path to the ‘good life,’ a life that was not just happy but also meaningful and fulfilling.”

     Randolph and Levin eventually came across the work of Angela Duckworth, Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, who wrote, “I study competencies other than general intelligence that predict academic and professional achievement. My research centers on self-control and grit.” Grit, she determined, has little to do with intelligence: the two do not correlate positively.

     She wrote that, “The problem, I think, is not only the schools but also the students themselves. Here’s why: learning is hard. True, learning is fun, exhilarating and gratifying—but it is also often daunting, exhausting and sometimes discouraging. To help chronically low-performing but intelligent students, educators and parents must first recognize that character is at least as important as intellect.”

     Duckworth developed a twelve-question test to determine a student’s degree of grit. For example, the final six statements are:  “I have achieved a goal that took years of effort,” “I have overcome setbacks to conquer an important challenge,” “I finish whatever I begin,” “Setbacks don’t discourage me,” “I am a hard worker,” and “I am dilligent.” Students rate themselves.

     What is remarkable, even amazing, about Duckworth’s three-minute test is that she discovered that it is a better predictor of success than IQ scores, SAT or ACT results, or a battery of other tests. For example, she administered the test to 139 Ivy League undergraduates in the fall of 2002 at the beginning of their freshman year and found that those who scored the highest grit factor on her test had the higher Grade Point Averages four years later.

     She also gave the test to incoming cadets at the U. S. Military Academy at West Point in 2004 and again in 2006 and determined that those who had scored higher on her grit survey were mainly those who stayed the course and graduated in 2008 and in 2010. She then gave her survey to spelling bee contestants, and it predicted those which would make the final round.

     Duckworth noticed that self-control over one’s emotions and behavior is important but that the “people who accomplished great things often combined a passion for a single mission with an unswerving dedication to achieve that mission.” In other words, grit. True Grit.

     So, Levin and Randolph incorporated grit and self-control in their list of character traits for their students to focus upon, plus zest, social intelligence, gratitude, optimism, and curiosity.

     Intelligence is only one component of a student’s person, and people demonstrate various quantities of it. Yet, the same is true of ambition, hustle, and drive; of consideration for others’ feelings, kindness, generosity, and compassion; of reading other peoples’ thoughts and understanding interpersonal dynamics; and of passionate interest in a worthwhile subject. Every individual is unique.


     If only a store would sell boxes of grit and self-control; stock its shelves with gratitude, curiosity, and ambition; and put price tags on zest and perseverance. Would they sell out? Would parents buy them at Christmas to wrap and give to their children? Perhaps, but maybe not. Some people seem so content with where they are at in life. Label me pessimistic, not an admirable character trait.